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SALT LAKE CITY — Despite concern and "some discomfort" expressed by Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, a Senate legislative committee voted to advance a bill amending the state's radioactive waste law to more easily accept waste that gets hotter over time.
Alan Matheson, executive director of the Utah Department of Environmental Quality, made clear the governor's office was not taking an official position on HB220 in the Senate Natural Resources, Agriculture and Enviornment Committee hearing Thursday, but did want to convey concern on his behalf.
"It does open the door to B and C waste in limited circumstances," Matheson said, referencing waste that is more radioactive and banned by the state in 2005.
At issue is EnergySolutions' desire to dispose of the nation's stockpile of 750,000 tons of a unique waste stream known as depleted uranium.
Depleted uranium is the byproduct of the uranium enrichment process during the nuclear fuel cycle and is also used in military and medical applications because of its density.
Although technically low-level radioactive waste at disposal, or class A waste, after about 38,000 years during the decay process, depleted uranium becomes more radioactive. It still is less radioactive than naturally occurring uranium, mined in Utah and elsewhere in the western United States.
Matheson's agency is in the midst of a seven-year effort to complete a site specific performance analysis on the suitability — or lack of suitability — for disposal of the waste at EnergySolutions' Clive site.
The bill by Rep. Carl Albrecht, R-Richfield, would clarify a question posed by the state agency over the timing of waste classification and would ultimately determine that classification occurs at the time of disposal.
Utah regulators and their consultants have been modeling the waste disposal in scenarios that contemplate storage challenges in deep geologic time, or tens of thousands of years into the future, as the waste gets hotter, exceeding radioactive levels allowed under state law.
The bill does not void the need for a site-specific analysis, but critics assert it allows both Utah regulators and EnergySolutions to skirt current safeguards.
"The timing of this legislation is really troubling," said Ashley Soltysiak, chapter director of the Utah Sierra Club.
Senate Minority Assistant Whip Jani Iwamoto, D-Salt Lake City, said opening the doors of accepting more depleted uranium in Utah is not good for the state, or its residents.
"I guess I am worried about bringing in other people's waste," she said. "I am just talking for myself, but depleted uranium scares me."
Tooele County Commissioner Shawn Milne, however, said EnergySolutions has a proven track record of safety.
"I believe in the science and I believe in the Utah Department of Environmental Quality," he said.
The measure now advances to the full Senate.